What Is Social Distancing and How Effective Is it for You?

Illustration of a man wearing a face mask confined in an apartment with a backdrop of city apartments

As our densely-populated world has grown ever more connected, with 39 million airline flights logged globally in 2019 alone, it's perhaps not surprising that a virus pandemic spread so quickly in 2020. With rapid transmission even from asymptomatic people, no known treatment, and a vaccine still many months away from viability, COVID-19 presents a daunting challenge to scientists, doctors and government authorities in every country.

The best course of action at present includes what is referred to as non-pharmaceutical interventions. You've probably heard instructions from medical experts about frequent handwashing and disinfecting of surfaces, sneezing into a tissue or your elbow, and social distancing. 

But what is social distancing, exactly, and is it effective? We've put together this detailed guide to help answer all your questions.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is a measure used to halt, or at least slow, the spread of communicable infections. Quite simply, social distancing involves keeping away from other people as much as possible. 

As the WHO (World Health Organization) website explains: 'When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain the virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease.' Most experts also recommend keeping at least six feet between you and everyone else, whether standing in line at the grocery, waiting to clock in at work, or walking your dog in your neighbourhood.

While the easiest way to avoid the virus is to stay at home and not go out, social distancing methods outside of home quarantine still have a positive effect. The first steps of social distancing require cancelling of all discretionary travel, avoiding gatherings of more than ten people and staying away from dine-in restaurants, bars, movie theatres and shopping malls.

More stringent social distancing efforts have included closing schools, non-essential businesses, and places of worship. It has been crucial for governments to cancel large-scale events where social distancing is impossible, like parades, concerts, festivals and sporting events – including the unprecedented postponement of the 2020 Olympics.

Social distancing in the workplace

While many businesses have temporarily shut down during the pandemic, a large number of people are still going to their job every day. Social distancing can be tricky when you work in close quarters with others or are required to assist customers. This is the most crucial time to strive for good communication between employees and supervisors.

Hopefully, your employer is accommodating your needs during this time. It's a good idea to be aware of your rights as an employee, including the laws in your area, your employee handbook, your contract language and any labour union agreement. For instance, the US has the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requiring employers to 'maintain a workplace that is free of dangerous health and safety conditions that can cause illness, injury, or death.' You have the right to demand social distancing measures at work to protect your health.

So, how can you implement social distancing in the workplace?

1. Telecommute

The most common expert advice is to work from home when possible. This keeps you at a safe distance from others, and there's a wealth of technology to help you stay connected and efficient at your home office.

2. Skip the meetings 

Crowding together in a small meeting room is the last thing you want to do. Use texts, emails or video conferencing. If you must communicate in person, maintain six feet of distance from your colleagues.

3. Cancel appointments

When possible, avoid bringing additional people to your office or business. Try to conduct transactions over the phone, online or reschedule for a later date.

4. Set boundaries

Businesses like grocers and pharmacies will, by nature, have lines and face-to-face contact. Many stores have marked lines on the floor, to show customers where to stand to maintain a safe distance.

5. Move your desk

Just like any flu season at work, you don't want to be sitting in close quarters with people who may cough or sneeze in your direction. Your employers should allow you to move your desks further apart, stagger which workstations you sit at, or set up alternating shifts, so fewer people are sitting together at once.

6. Call in sick

An essential social distancing etiquette is staying home when you are unwell. While the best reason for calling in sick is to avoid infecting others, it also benefits you to get the rest you need to recover. Even if it turns out that you only have a cold, your weakened immune system could make you more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 when you're at work. Check with your doctor before you return to action, and maintain all social distancing guidelines once you're healthy again.

How effective is social distancing?

You may be wondering if sitting at home alone in your PJs practising retail therapy is doing anything other than making Jeff Bezos richer. Drastically changing your daily habits can be difficult, and it's easy to get frustrated when the infection rate in your town, country and the world are continuing to worsen. 

Individual actions do have an effect, though. Epidemiologist Adam Kucharski makes that clear with simple numbers: One person who contracts the virus can lead to 244 more infected people within the month. With social distancing, this cuts the initial transmission rate in half, meaning that only four people get infected within the month.

Government officials, doctors and scientists have continually referred to the way that intervention data looks on a graph, where social distancing blunts the spike of infections into more of a gentle slope. A rapid spike can overwhelm communities and their healthcare system, as we've seen happen in Italy and on the coasts of the United States. Spreading out cases over time, however, allows medical facilities to plan and adapt. This means that those in a severe condition can receive proper treatment, increasing recovery rates and reducing fatalities.

We've seen the positive effects of strict social distancing in China and South Korea already. Journalists in the US have been encouraged by similar findings in California and Florida. Communities who start social distancing early on have the potential to flatten the curve within a week. So, the better we are at social distancing, the faster we can get the virus under control.

Why do people ignore social distancing recommendations?

Despite government pleas to practice social distancing, global news reported that people of all ages are congregating on beaches, in parks, on crowded yachts, and in groups on the street. Even in Italy, where astronomical numbers of critically ill COVID-19 patients have decimated the healthcare system, the government reported that 40 per cent of residents in the hardest-hit region were violating the stringent lockdown measures.

So, despite the proven effectiveness of social distancing, why are so many people still resistant to the practice?

1. Mixed messaging 

COVID-19 has been labelled a 'novel coronavirus' as it's a new strain that scientists have never seen. This has created an environment of constantly evolving information and expert opinions that often conflict with one another. Overwhelmed with a flood of contradictory instructions, people are unsure who to believe or how to respond.

2. Economic concerns

Ukrainians interviewed for Euronews revealed that the reaction to social distancing and other recommended measures illustrates the class divide. Those without wealth or a social safety net still try to keep their small businesses open or crowd onto public transportation to get to their jobs.

3. Denial

Many hope that if they just go about their normal routines and ignore everything else, that they can still feel safe. Practicing social distancing means accepting that the danger is real.

4. Individualism

In an article for GQ,  Julia Ioffe noted that, 'Americans are good at following the rules, and Americans are extremely charitable, but still, deep down, there is that widespread individualism, mixed with that frequent distrust of science when it contradicts your own good common sense, that stiff-upper-lip, mind-over-matter business we inherited from the Brits.' 

5. False sense of security

Reports that only the elderly are at serious risk, or that it's worse in another country allow people to convince themselves they don't need to practice social distancing. 'I'm young and healthy, why bother?' is a common refrain.

While there are many different reasons for rejecting social distancing, one of the most common is that it's emotionally challenging to be isolated from our family, friends and co-workers. The American Psychological Association notes that social distancing can cause people to experience heightened stress, anxiety, depression, boredom and irritability. They recommend using 'phone calls, text messages, video chat and social media' to maintain your social support system. 

Missing your watercooler chats at work about the latest Netflix show? Start a group text or Facebook group so you can still have those discussions with your work buddies.

Social distancing dos and don'ts

So how do you practice social distancing when you still need to go to work, get groceries or medicine? Here are some additional guidelines on altering your daily habits:

1. Food delivery

Avoid dining in at your favourite restaurants. Instead, order take-out or delivery. Many establishments that don't typically offer these options are doing so during this crisis. Ordering delivery minimises your contact to only one person and supports local businesses at this time.

2. Groceries 

If you must visit the grocers, try to go at odd times when there'll be fewer people inside. Remember to keep six feet of social distancing. Some supermarkets have designated the first hour of each day to seniors and vulnerable groups so that they can avoid crowds. When it's available, make use of grocery stores that deliver or offer drive-up service.

3. Shopping

Most of us are used to e-commerce by now, so suspend your visits to brick and mortar stores and do your shopping online. Many businesses are offering extremely low sales prices to encourage online shopping while you're stuck at home (If you've been planning on opening your own online business, this could be a great time to start!)

4. Doctor appointments

Cancel all non-essential doctor appointments like annual visits to your physician or dentist. If you have minor concerns, many medical practitioners are offering telephone consultations or video chats.

5. Playdates

When everyone is home from school and work, it can be a challenge to keep the whole household entertained. You may be tempted to arrange play dates for your children, but bringing groups of kids together defeats the purpose of social distancing. Even if they only pass the ordinary flu to each other, that may require medical attention; Paediatrician Lindsay Thompson of the University of Florida notes: 'You want to avoid doctor's visits if you can, both to avoid possibly getting infected with the coronavirus and to avoid overloading the health care system.'

Social distancing is not always an easy task, but enduring this short-term discomfort is worth it if it means protecting our community. As we go through life, we learn to adapt to things like the rigid structure of school, the demands of a new and challenging job, and taking on family responsibilities. Hopefully, this guide will help you face this latest challenge head-on.

Have you been practising social distancing? Have you got any tips to share? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!